Stephen Schwartz: ‘I had no idea how cut-throat and mean theatre was’
By 1976, when he was just 28 years old, Stephen Schwartz had three hit musicals playing side by side on Broadway – Godspell, Pippin and The Magic Show. That’s a rare achievement, although he had actually made his Broadway debut ahead of all of them in 1969 when he was only 21, with a song he contributed to a play called Butterflies Are Free. “I was paid the enormous royalty of $25 a week for it,” he tells me, as we meet at the Cafe Royal near Piccadilly Circus, where he is also staying.
He’s come a long way since then, including three Oscar wins for his film work. Today, he is in London to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Wicked, before heading to Vienna for the premiere of his latest musical, Schikaneder, which tells the backstory of the original production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute). But there was a long gap between that early wave of Broadway successes in the mid-1970s before he had another Broadway triumph with Wicked nearly 30 years later in 2003; shows like The Baker’s Wife closed on the road in 1976, and Working (1978, which he also directed) and Rags (1986, for which he provided lyrics to Charles Strouse’s music) were fast flops on Broadway. Children of Eden (which he launched first in the West End in 1991) also failed.
Today, he tells me that he very nearly activated a backup career option that he’d held in reserve for himself during his lean years. “My promise to myself and the deal I’d made was to give myself until I was 25, five years after I’d left university, to see if I could make a living as a theatre composer. Obviously it was my childhood dream to be a musical theatre composer and lyricist, but not all dreams come true, and I was going to be a psychologist if it didn’t work out. I would actually very much liked to have done that, and in some alternative universe somewhere I feel like I’m happily practising as a therapist. But then everything blew up so early for me.”
The bubble of his early career was burst by the run of failures that followed between 1976 and 1991. “I went back to school to become a psychologist after all. When Children of Eden didn’t work here it was heartbreaking – I didn’t know then that it would become this massive hit in America and around the world [in subsequent licensed professional and amateur productions]. I thought, I’ve had a nice career and had done well financially, and I always wanted to do this other thing, so why not do it? So I enrolled at NYU and did graduate courses in psychology.”
But then came a fateful call from Disney. “They asked me to meet with them. Howard Ashman had passed away and they were looking for a writing partner for Alan Menken for his scores for animated features. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse – I’d never done movies and had never envisioned myself having a movie career, but we did Pocahontas [1995, for which he won two Oscars] and it took off.”
It was followed by The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), again written with Menken for Disney, then The Prince of Egypt for Dreamworks (1998, for which he wrote both music and lyrics and won a third Oscar for best original song for When You Believe). “That ended my life as a psychotherapist, except in an alternative universe where Disney doesn’t hire me and they hire Jason Robert Brown instead,” he quips. “I was very happy in Hollywood. I was doing extremely well there and things were good. I was not at all interested in working on Broadway again – it was always quite fraught ground for me. I have very mixed and complicated feelings about it, and had no interest in doing theatre again.”
When I later ask him what he knows now that he wished he’d known when he was starting out, he amplifies on his misgivings about the Great White Way. “I wish I’d understood the realities of working in the commercial theatre. I went in with a lot of illusions. I thought it would be this lovely happy family trying to make art – boy, was I wrong. I didn’t know how cut-throat and mean it was. That phrase ‘theatre community’, in my experience in New York, is a complete oxymoron. It took me a long time to deal with it. If you’re a boxer, you know you’re going to be hit, that’s part of the job. I didn’t know that was going to happen in the theatre.”
But what finally drew him back to the theatre was a chance conversation. The composer/lyricist John Bucchino was accompanying a singer called Holly Near for a concert in Hawaii. “Through various random circumstances, I joined them,” he explains. “On the last day we all went on a snorkelling trip, and Holly told me on the boat bringing us back that she was reading this interesting book by Gregory Maguire called Wicked, which told the Wizard of Oz story from the Wicked Witch’s point of view. Every hair on my body stood up. It was a lightbulb moment – the best idea I’d ever heard and one that cried out to be a musical, and in so many ways was perfect for me. It was everything in one idea that I like to do, theatrically and thematically and in terms of character. So I immediately set about trying to get the rights. And once I started down that road, it was so big it had to be a Broadway show. So, there I was trying to work on Broadway again.”
It took more than a year to acquire the rights. “From then to opening was about six years, which is now the standard length of time it takes to do a musical,” he says.
Wicked opened on Broadway in 2003, where it has run ever since. It transferred to the West End’s Apollo Victoria in 2006, and talking of the 10th-anniversary performance he was due to attend later the day we met, he tells me: “It’s amazing. We’re all a little astounded. We didn’t expect it to work so well here. Many shows of mine that have been popular elsewhere have not particularly found a home in England. Pippin has never worked here – there have been some attempts [most recently at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2011], but it never worked, and the most recent Broadway production, which is probably our best iteration of the show ever, hasn’t come here. So we were frankly worried about bringing Wicked to London for its first production outside of the US, and talked about whether it should have been Japan, where it might have been more likely to have a warm reception.”
But the show defied his own expectations – and you could say, to quote its most famous song, it has defied gravity, too, in its reach and appeal. In just one week last year, it was seen by 45,000 people in the UK, with the London production and a tour (that was then in Edinburgh) between them grossing £2,160,377 at the box office. The London production saw a nine-show week taking a gross of £1,023,819, up from its 2011 record week of £1,002,885 when it became the first show in West End history to gross over £1 million in a single week. More than 7.5 million people have now seen it in London.
Q&A: Stephen Schwartz
What was your first theatrical or non-theatrical job? When I was in high school, I worked at a theatre on Long Island, where I grew up, in the box office and helped to park the cars. I got paid for that, but I also got to apprentice and have roles in shows for free.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? How cut-throat and mean the theatre is. It took me a long time to deal with it.
Who or what is your biggest influence? I have so many as a writer, but from a construction point of view I would credit the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, particularly The King and I – and also the way Jerome Robbins constructed shows he worked on like Gypsy.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Go in knowing the truth that the people for whom you are auditioning want to like you; we actually want someone to come in and get the role, just as when you go shopping for something you want to find what you are looking for. Be yourself, and the best version of yourself you can be. Don’t second guess what they are looking for. If you’re not right for the role, you won’t get it, but you stand a better chance if you show us who you are. And don’t apologise for anything: if you’ve got strep throat, don’t tell us – do the best you can. You can tell the casting director before you go in; if you’re good and someone says you’re great but didn’t hit the high notes, the casting director can tell them that you’ve got a bad throat and you’ve not told them.
If you hadn’t been a composer/lyricist, what would you have been? A psychologist.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I don’t tend to go to opening nights but that’s not a superstition – it’s just because they’re so unpleasant.
In an interview with me a few years ago, the show’s London executive producer Michael McCabe pointed out, though, that its success in London was never guaranteed. He said: “I was told by people in the UK theatre industry that I had the hardest job of all. We opened in a year when many other shows opened, too – like Monty Python’s Spamalot and The Sound of Music.”
It has outlived both of them in the West End, but as McCabe pointed out: “Wicked wasn’t by any means a dead cert. We were not one of the frontrunners. And we took a few knocks at the beginning. Some of the reviews were very mixed. The show was ignored by the Olivier Awards. It was ignored by everyone but the audiences, who came in droves. What happened was that we rode the wave of social media and the word of mouth spread very quickly. I haven’t worked on a show before that has been able to benefit so much and so fast from that new invention.”
And the numbers just grew and grew: “The sheer volume of people coming through the doors in such a big theatre meant that we had 18,000 people a week seeing it, so that turned into a lot of people spreading good word of mouth. And audiences always have an amazing time.”
The show is famously a production that resonates particularly as a story of female empowerment. Today, Schwartz admits: “The show has surprised us all with its longevity. I’m not going to apologise for the show – I think it’s a really good show – but I realise that it has resonated in a way that has gone beyond the material. As David Stone, one of our producers, has famously been quoted as saying, we all have that green girl inside of us. And for young women, that story has not been told too often in their terms. There are a lot of aspirational male stories, but not so many for women.”
Part of the success of the show he attributes to good maintenance. A few years ago, a Broadway revival of Godspell played downstairs in the same building on Broadway that Wicked is running at, and he says: “It was very good for me – it meant I could go and check in on Godspell, then run next door and take notes on the second act of Wicked. I try to go every six months, particularly when there are cast changes. We have a team who go around the world keeping the show in shape. It is so easy for successful shows to become not bad, but a little mediocre – they lose nuance and spark. We really have been determined to try to prevent that happening with Wicked. People who are paying $150 or more in New York deserve the same level of performance that the people who saw it within the first three months got. It’s not like the tickets are getting any less expensive – to the contrary. So we feel a keen responsibility to the audience to give them the best show possible.”
Meanwhile, he has just started working on a feature film version of Wicked.
“The seeds have just been planted but not quite watered yet. Your very own Stephen Daldry is directing, about which we are thrilled. And a couple of months ago, Stephen and Winnie Holtzman (who wrote the book) and Marc Platt, who is co-producer of the show and also a movie guy so will be producing the film, met in LA to begin the development, and work on an outline to tell the story cinematically.”
He notes that the intention is to make the movie “more like the film versions of Cabaret or The Sound of Music than My Fair Lady, where they essentially picked up the show and filmed it. But with Cabaret and The Sound of Music, they both used a lot of the material from the original show to create something brand-new. That is our intention with this”.
More immediately, however, he’s in the midst of putting the finishing touches to a brand-new musical, Schikaneder, that has just premiered at Vienna’s Raimund Theater, which has previously premiered such European musicals as Elisabeth, Dance of the Vampires and Rebecca. “I’ve known the artistic director, Christian Struppeck, for many years, and he had this idea to do a show about Mozart and the German impresario Emanuel Schikaneder, who inspired him to write operas. At the end of Mozart’s life and the pinnacle of Schikaneder’s career they produced Die Zauberflote, and Christian had this idea to do a show about how it came to be.”
Stephen Schwartz’s top tips for an aspiring theatre composer
• My top tip is to try to see what you’ve written. Get together a group of friends, or do it at a university, or see if you can interest someone who does readings of new shows, so you can learn the difference between what you think works on the page and what works in performance, which are two very different things. You then need to have some piece of that, like a demo, as a calling card, so that when you meet someone who can actually help you gain employment you have something to show them. It’s very unlikely that your first piece will ever turn into a commercial production – but somebody may see what you’ve done, recognise you have ability, and ask you to do something else.
He admits to an anxiety about being a composer setting himself up to being compared to Mozart: “It’s a stupid choice, it’s reckless, like putting a target on your chest. But I’m so used to being hit like that, I’ve developed quite a carapace by now. The good thing is that no one is ever going to be as good as Mozart, so they can’t say they should have used someone else.”
Instead, Schwartz freely quotes from Mozart directly. He says that the moment of inspiration for him and why he wanted to do the show was a particular sequence he created when the idea to do it was first proposed: “There’s a scene when the cast confronts Mozart’s material, and they think it’s the worst idea ever and the story makes no sense. But while they are complaining, one of the new pieces of music arrives and the orchestra tries it out. When you first hear the cast singing, you think they are just singing a tune from our show; but then you hear this music, which is the March of the Priests from the opening of the second act of The Magic Flute, and they sing it over mine and they go together. That idea was so thrilling to me that the rest of the show just built out from there.”
It’s a revealing insight into the process of one of the giants of musical theatre today. And at 68, he’s not slowing down. The Hunchback of Notre Dame has now been adapted for the stage, and he’s also working on bringing The Prince of Egypt to the stage, too. The former was produced at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse last year, and he admits: “I have to say, cards on the table, that I’m quite disappointed it didn’t go to Broadway. It was a wonderful production and I’m very proud of the show. But I understand that Disney can’t have 27 shows on Broadway – they have to control their own share of the market. And with The Lion King, Aladdin and Frozen coming in, there was no place for Hunchback.”
So, busy as he is and despite having one of the top grossing shows of the last decade to his credit, his mixed feelings towards Broadway persist. But London may yet be the beneficiary of his suspicion about New York theatre. Of Schikaneder, which has a British creative team including director Trevor Nunn, choreographer Anthony van Laast and sound designer Gareth Owen, he says as we part: “I could see it in London, but I’m not sure it is an American show.”
CV: Stephen Schwartz
Born: 1948, New York
Training: Carnegie Mellon University and Juilliard
Awards: Four Grammy awards: Godspell (two – producer and composer), Pocahontas for Colors of the Wind, Wicked (producer and songwriter for best musical show album)
Three Academy Awards: Pocahontas (lyrics by Schwartz), best score and best song for Colors of the Wind; The Prince of Egypt, best original song for When You Believe
Four Drama Desk awards: most promising composer and most promising lyricist for Godspell (1971); outstanding director of a musical for Working (1978); outstanding lyrics for Wicked (2004)
Golden Globe award for Colors of the Wind, Pocahontas (1996)
Isabelle Stevenson Award (2015), a special Tony award, for his commitment to serving artists and fostering new talent
Landmark productions: Godspell, Off-Broadway (1971), then Broadway (1976), Pippin, Broadway (1972), The Magic Show, Broadway (1974), The Baker’s Wife (1976, closed on the road; West End, 1990), Working, Broadway (1978), Rags, Broadway (1986), Children of Eden, West End (1991), Wicked, Broadway (2003)